Norman Scribner passes the baton at Choral Arts Society

April 20, 2012

“Sayeth the spirit, that they rest from their labors,
and that their works follow after them.”

— Johannes Brahms

It’s a vintage Norman Scribner story. When the Army drafted the young organist, then 22, he took only three books with him. The Bible, of course. No clergyman’s son could forget that. “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” good for passing evenings in the flatlands of Fort Chaffee, Ark. And lastly, a thin, emerald book containing the music and German text of Johannes Brahms’s “Ein Deutsches Requiem.”

Three parts of one man, neatly stacked in an Army footlocker.

Shortly after he began basic training, Scribner returned from an exercise and found his essential reading missing.

“I see we have a scholar here!” barked a sergeant, holding up Scribner’s books in front of his unit.

“He jeered and made fun of the whole thing,” the conductor remembers. “It was embarrassing, but I knew I had some great stuff on my side.”

That was 1958. Elvis Pressley had shuffled through the base days before. Now, maestro Scribner, 76, whom everyone calls Norman, stores the discolored pages of that book near the grand piano in his overflowing home library.

“In my youth, I regarded Brahms as the greatest composer of all time,” Scribner said.

And the piece is still among his favorites. For Scribner, the piece is a living requiem, one that served as a blueprint for his career and spiritual life. Which is why it’s so fitting that the retiring conductor, who founded the Choral Arts Society of Washington 47 years ago, will conduct the National Symphony Orchestra and his amateur choristers performing “Ein Deutsches Requiem” at the final concert of his career on April 22 at the Kennedy Center.

Scribner’s retirement signals the end of a musical era, a half century that evolved alongside the soundtrack he provided to a city’s sweeping changes. And now, Scribner says, “It’s time.” Time to move on. Time to conclude, or as Brahms posits in this seminal work, time to pass the torch. In September, Scott Tucker, 55, will leave his post as the choral director of Cornell University to succeed Scribner as artistic director of the Choral Arts Society for the 2012-2013 season. Scribner gave the search committee his full support and refused to participate in the international search, so as not to taint or influence the direction of the chorus. Choral Arts made the announcement in March.

“Everything in life has a cycle to it,” Scribner says, sitting in the sunroom of his home in Northwest Washington. “Sure I could go on for more years, but . . . it all comes down to this general sensation that there’s a right time for everything. The Bible says there’s a time for this and a time for that, and I just felt instinctively that it was time for a younger person to get in.”

But until the younger man arrives, Scribner has a choir to direct.

I. Sow in tears . . . reap in joy

“Wo ist dein Sieg?” Where is your victory? they bellow at a Tuesday evening rehearsal at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church’s Satterlee Hall. By now, the chorus is well beyond the sorrowful first movement. It’s nearing the end on Page 78, harping on the German Sieg pronounce it Zeek, the language coach reminds — as Scribner drills his foot into the podium, stomping out the staccato.

“One person is all it takes to ruin it!” Scribner reminds them, possessing an ear that age has not yet betrayed.

The chorus isn’t even singing. They’re repeating the question in a way that doesn’t sound so heavenly.

Wo! Ist! Dein! Zeeeeeeek?

In 1964, Meryle Secrest, the biographer then writing for The Washington Post, said the 28-year-old Scribner looked more like a football player than a conductor. Almost 50 years later, the 6-foot-2 man with boundless energy still maintains an imposing, athletic stature.

Wo! Ist! Dein! Zeeeeeeek.

“Dazzle me with the staccatissimo!” He begs.

Wo! Ist! Dein! Zeeeeeeek.

“That is almost good!” He silences them. “You know I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t mean it.” Some sopranos chuckle.

“Watch the stick!” He commands.

No one in this all-volunteer choir seems flummoxed by his fastidiousness. Three hours of rehearsal each week, year after year, one might wonder what he eats to keep him standing and stomping and still knowing the German word coming up on Page 79. How does that quick “Tsk-tsk-tsk” of his tongue stop the four-part harmonies mid-measure?

“He’s always been a stickler for detail, and he sets the bar high,” said Anne B. Keiser, a 37-year member of Choral Arts who chaired of the search committee.

“Norman is a detail man,” says Ann Stahmer, executive director of the City Choir of Washington who sang with Choral Arts Society for 21 years. “I’ve seen him measure the margins of a playbill with a ruler and say, “This margin is off by an eighth of an inch . . . ’ That’s why he’s wonderful. He looks at the bigger picture through the smallest details.”

II. So be ye patient

Would you like to sing Messiah with the National Symphony?

“We put that ad in the paper, and almost 500 people came to tryout,” Scribner says of the ad he placed in the early ’60s that would lead to the founding of the Choral Arts Society. “We got a chorus of 120 that was extremely high quality. The symphony loved it and asked us back for the spring.”

When Scribner first arrived to Washington in 1960 after his military service, he worked at the National Cathedral as an assistant to the late Paul Callaway, his mentor and arguably the godfather of Washington’s choral community. Before Scribner began his chorus, the NSO would perform with combined church choirs, picking up the best voices from the esteemed Cathedral Choral Society and smaller choirs around the area. Scribner wanted to create a permanent chorus that could perform regularly with the NSO and founded the Choral Arts Society in 1965. It incorporated in 1966, the same year that Scribner married his wife, Shirley, then an alto in his choir.

“That was a big year for me,” he smiles. “A busy time.”

It would get busier. He would later collaborate with the great names of contemporary classical: Leonard Bernstein,Valery Gergiev and Mstislav Rostropovich.

Yet when Scribner began piano lessons at age 10, his heart was set on becoming a concert pianist, not a conductor. It wasn’t until Virgil Fox, the famed American organist, visited his father’s church in Cumberland, Md., that he realized an altar could serve as a powerful stage for centuries of music. He remembers watching Fox practice, his feet dancing on the pedals, which inspired him to learn the organ, too. He spent mornings and evening at the church, learning on what he called “the best organ in town.”

At 15, he started his first church job, and would go on to study organ at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins. For the next 60 years, he would work in churches until he resigned as choirmaster and organist of St. Alban’s in 2007.

“As a young man, I flirted with the idea of becoming a clergyman,” Scribner recalls. “But I always viewed music as a form of ministry.”

III. My life has a term . . . that I must pass on

Callaway was to Scribner what Scribner is to so many choristers and conductors in Washington: a generous mentor, who gave him his biggest break.

When Leonard Bernstein asked Callaway to assemble the choir for the premiere of his “Mass” at the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, he declined, having already accepted a teaching assignment for the summer. He recommended Scribner.

“I got a phone call one night and heard, ‘Mr. Scribner, my name is Schuyler Chapin and I’m an associate of Leonard Bernstein’s,” he recalls. “‘You were recommended to prepare the chorus for the opening of the center.’ You can imagine a youngster like myself getting that phone call!”

The 60-person chorus Scribner chose performed at the opening and on television. It would catapult Choral Arts onto the national stage.

“He and his choir were in the right place at right time,” says Robert Shafer, artistic director of the City Choir of Washington, who considers Scribner a colleague, friend and mentor. “He had only started the group six years before, but it was already a first-rate organization.”

Much like Callaway’s mentorship of Scribner, Shafer says he owes his career to Norman’s “generosity of spirit.”

“Norman is special to me; he gave me my first chance,” says Shafer, 66. “He’s become like father figure.”

Perhaps that’s why Scribner was ready to give a younger conductor an opportunity to lead the choir he founded. Tucker, who succeeded a 38-year veteran Thomas Sokol at Cornell in 1996, is well aware of the sensitivity one needs to succeed a beloved musical fixture.

“Norman is such a class act,” said Tucker. “In a way, it’s easy to follow someone like that. He’s made me feel welcome.”

Keiser says the board is touched by Tucker’s sensitivity to Scribner’s retirement. “I really think he’s the full package, an exquisite musician, with the deepest sensitivity to Norman and Choral Arts. He wants to make the transition positive for everyone.”

And it helps that Scribner, too, wants a smooth transition, announcing his retirement in August 2010 to allow for a robust search.

“There’s a whole new wave of music, and audiences and tastes are changing, too,” said Scribner. “It’s time for a younger person, who can meet these dominant challenges of our time.”

Like most arts organizations, Choral Arts still suffers from the impact of the recession on arts funding. Ticket sales often cover only 50 percent of the cost of performances, making private and public donations essential to the nonprofit.

IV. They praise thy name evermore

For Scribner, who helped transform Washington into a choral city, retirement is fraught with heavy emotions.

“He has devoted individuals — patrons and singers and listeners — people who thought he could conduct forever,” said Debra Kraft, executive director of Choral Arts. “And when someone is beloved, some people suspended belief that this day would come.”

But it’s also a time for remembrance. So many members have spent decades with Choral Arts.

Elizabeth Romig, 32, one of the youngest members, joined Choral Arts in 2003. “I auditioned the first week I arrived here,” the soprano said, noting Scribner’s reputation and how music “is so much a part of his being. It’s not about him.”

“I saw an ad in the paper that said, ‘men wanted,’ ” said Larry Kolp, the chorus president who joined in 1988 to sing in a performance with Rostropovich and the NSO. He stayed four weeks and thought about leaving. “I didn’t think I liked choral music, but they were doing the Brahms “Requiem” next, so I thought, ‘I’ll stay through that.’ Well, I stayed through this Brahms . . . because of Norman.”

But, there are some minor criticisms of Scribner. Some claim he can’t even carry a tune.

“You know, Norman even says he can’t sing, but he can certainly hear,” Shafer says in his defense. “None of us are opera singers.”

V. Joy no man taketh from you

Scribner doesn’t want to sermonize. All music, by its nature, contains spiritual content, he says. But as the son and grandson of clergymen, he says, spirituality informs his very being, and “Ein Deutsches Requiem” has always been a familiar song and prayer.

Brahms almost named it “The Human Requiem,” since the German language mattered less than its universal sentiments. Unlike Roman Catholic requiems made for the Latin Mass, Brahms wrote the libretto in his native tongue and pulled the text from his childhood Bible. It’s his longest work, 70 minutes in length, and one written shortly after the death of his mother.

Scribner has memorized the seven movements. He can recite the German and its English translation and offer analysis intermittently.

“It’s especially moving to me because of the text,” Scribner said. “The set of texts deal with the dual realities of death, the grief and sorrow of losing someone, and the triumph of eternal life.”

VI. For we have no abiding city, but we seek one

It’s hard to say exactly when Washington became a choral city, but when Scribner arrived, fewer choruses existed. Certainly, the arrival of the Kennedy Center added another venue for choruses to perform, but there’s a deeper question that conductors here often ponder: why is there so much talent in Washington?

“There are so many idealistic, single young people moving here after they’ve graduated college, and they want to meet people. Many of them sang in college and want to continue singing and making music, so they look for a good chorus. And they do meet people: we’ve had countless marriages come out of choral arts over the years,” Scribner said.

Tucker has a new theory: “I’m not sure, since I don’t live there yet,” he jokes. “But it seems that D.C. is a city of extroverts. Singing is not necessarily an activity for the shy.”

While hypotheses vary, no one disputes that Washington’s choral community has grown over the past five decades, with three symphonic choirs performing at the Kennedy Center.

“I’ve seen so much change and growth in the arts community here,” Scribner said. “I feel like this city has grown with me.”

VII. They rest from their labors. Their works follow after them.

Scribner will end his career with Brahms’s seventh movement, on a Sunday afternoon, a deserved seventh day of rest. The requiem ends with transition, not finality — good works living on after the inevitable occurs.

“I’m old!” he laughs. “When you get to my age, there’s a slowing-down. A need for reflection. In the last few years, I’ve found myself wanting to spend more time with the music. . . . And I now have eight grandchildren. I don’t want to miss the opportunities to be a significant part of their lives. Of course, I also want to spend more time with Shirley, my wife.”

He’s not sure how he’ll spend his days. He barely remembers what it was like before Choral Arts, before to-do lists and season calendars and fundraising.

“I anticipate missing it a lot,” he says. “It’s what I do when I get up in the morning.”

But he knows he can’t sit still. Maybe he’ll teach. Maybe he’ll write. He’s always wanted to pen “The Insider’s Guide to Choral Music.”

“It’s been 15 years since I’ve written any music. I want to reexamine composition. Maybe there’s some work that’s left to come from me.”

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this story.

The Choral Arts Society of Washington

and the Washington Performing Arts Society present the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the National Symphony Orchestra in Johannes Brahms’s “Ein Deutsches Requiem.” Sunday.4 p.m. Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets, $20-85 available at www.kennedy-center.org and www.wpas.org.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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